A Fatwa That Takes Us Back to the Days of "Girl Burying"

A newly released Fatwa (religious edict) has prohibited women in Saudi Arabia from working on tills in supermarkets. The country's "Permanent Committee for Fatwas" (PCF) has recently made it clear that only men can sit behind cash-registers to calculate the value of your purchased goods, take your money, count it and give you back your change, despite the fact that the country's Ministry of Labour doesn't have such restrictions within its employment guidelines for retail outlets.

The PCF Fatwa holds No. 24937 and was released on October 31st 2010. Since then, it has caused quite a stir in the Saudi Kingdom; a country where shopping could be considered a national sport and arguably society's biggest past-time.

The edict states that "Women are not allowed to work in places where mixing with men occurs... what is required for them is to look for an allowed line of work where she may not seduce or be seduced."

Local media reports have claimed that this edict was issued after the PCF received a question directed to the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia asking what his thoughts were regarding women working on supermarket tills where they "mix with men, talk to them, receive/give back goods and attend training sessions with male colleagues.

Fatwas have been a hot topic in the country over the past 2 years with several "un-carefully thought through" edicts being released and intensely criticized by members of government, clergy, society and the media. Earlier this year, the Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, issued a royal decree restricting the right of issuing Fatwas to members of the senior clergy of the kingdom.

So far, it doesn't seem that the "Cash Register Fatwa" will be retracted nor challenged. Several Saudi columnists have questioned its relevance and effectiveness, given that in many supermarkets female till-operators work in a separate section (known as a "family section" in Saudi Arabia), they are covered-up in the traditional Abaya and work in a public facility (a supermarket!) where it would be very difficult for them to be harmed in any way.

Some believe that this edict came as a result of the way the question was put to the Grand Mufti; a technique commonly referred to as "Milking a Fatwa" which occurs when a question is formulated in a certain way that leads the Mufti's to respond against what the subject of the matter is. Others are saying that the PCF didn't investigate the matter thoroughly nor did it consider the consequences of its edict which causes more unnecessary unemployment for Saudi women who already face severe restrictions when it comes to accepting them in the job market due to a mixture of ultra-conservatism of some factions of society and a tendency to blur the lines between what is religiously required and what is socially acceptable.

However, "Fatwa-miking" attempts could have various reasons behind them, this could range between anything from a group of religious extremists (who may see female cashier-operators a dangerous sign of modernity) seeking to popularize their interpretation of the religion by obtaining an "official cover" from the PCF to a person who might have a personal vendetta against the owner or owning company of the country's biggest supermarket chains (the question that was directed to the Grand Mufti did specify certain supermarket chains by the way).

Anyhow, there has been no official feedback as one Saudi newspaper has reported that the Minister of Labour, Adel Faqih, has refrained from commenting on the matter so far, citing that the reason could be that he has just been appointed to replace the late Ghazi AlQosaibi who has passed away last August and needs to sort out matters internally before making public statements.

Assuming the minister will require a bit more time to get things moving, I hope he doesn't mind if I speak on his behalf for the time being, while I am sure the vast majority of women cash-register operators will not mind what I will have to say next.

This Fatwa is absolutely ridiculous, it should be withdrawn immediately and a much more thorough mechanism should be put in place at the PCF, so that people will stop "milking" Fatwas out in the way that suits their interest. (Assuming we accept that a "milking" attempt was the excuse for how such a preposterous edict came to be).

Once again, I find myself in need to argue against religious scholars when I am not one myself. However, the Holy Quran, the books of Hadeeth and the history is there for everyone to read.

Did women not work in trade in the days of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)? Didn't he not work for a businesswoman and then ended up marrying her (I am referring to The Prophet's first wife, Khadija Bint Khowaylid)? Am I the only one who happens to think that it is just outrageous that women were allowed to trade freely with men more than 1400 years ago and we come to know to place unjust, unnecessary and un-thought-through restrictions?

When Mohammad became a Prophet -- one of the first things he did was to say that Islam came to forever abolish slavery and forbid "Wa'd Al Banat" (Girl Burying), a pre-Islamic tribal custom of burying baby girls while they were still alive in fear of disgrace or to prevent them from being enslaved by conquering tribesmen.

With un-carefully thought-through Fatwas that prevent women, who may be desperate for a job to support herself or indeed her family, I really begin to question if we have returned to the "Girl Burying" days!